Transcribed by David Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Style, the Latin name for an iron pen, has come to designate the art that handles, with ever fresh vitality and wary alacrity, the fluid elements of speech. By a figure, obvious enough, which yet might serve for an epitome of literary method, the most rigid and simplest of instruments has lent its name to the subtlest and most flexible of arts. Thence the application of the word has been extended to arts other than literature, to the whole range of the activities of man. The fact that we use the word "style" in speaking of architecture and sculpture, painting and music, dancing, play-acting, and cricket, that we can apply it to the careful achievements of the housebreaker and the poisoner, and to the spontaneous animal movements of the limbs of man or beast, is the noblest of unconscious tributes to the faculty of letters. The pen, scratching on wax or paper, has become the symbol of all that is expressive, all that is intimate, in human nature; not only arms and arts, but man himself, has yielded to it. His living voice, with its undulations and inflexions, assisted by the mobile play of feature and an infinite variety of bodily gesture, is driven to borrow dignity from the same metaphor; the orator and the actor are fain to be judged by style. "It is most true," says the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, "stylus virum arguit, our style bewrays us." Other gestures shift and change and flit, this is the ultimate and enduring revelation of personality. The actor and the orator are condemned to work evanescent effects on transitory material; the dust that they write on is blown about their graves. The sculptor and the architect deal in less perishable ware, but the stuff is recalcitrant and stubborn, and will not take the impress of all states of the soul. Morals, philosophy, and aesthetic, mood and conviction, creed and whim, habit, passion, and demonstration—what art but the art of literature admits the entrance of all these, and guards them from the suddenness of mortality? What other art gives scope to natures and dispositions so diverse, and to tastes so contrarious? Euclid and Shelley, Edmund Spenser and Herbert Spencer, King David and David Hume, are all followers of the art of letters.
In the effort to explain the principles of an art so bewildering in its variety, writers on style have gladly availed themselves of analogy from the other arts, and have spoken, for the most part, not without a parable. It is a pleasant trick they put upon their pupils, whom they gladden with the delusion of a golden age, and perfection to be sought backwards, in arts less complex. The teacher of writing, past master in the juggling craft of language, explains that he is only carrying into letters the principles of counterpoint, or that it is all a matter of colour and perspective, or that structure and ornament are the beginning and end of his intent. Professor of eloquence and of thieving, his winged shoes remark him as he skips from metaphor to metaphor, not daring to trust himself to the partial and frail support of any single figure. He lures the astonished novice through as many trades as were ever housed in the central hall of the world's fair. From his distracting account of the business it would appear that he is now building a monument, anon he is painting a picture (with brushes dipped in a gallipot made of an earthquake); again he strikes a keynote, weaves a pattern, draws a wire, drives a nail, treads a measure, sounds a trumpet, or hits a target; or skirmishes around his subject; or lays it bare with a dissecting knife; or embalms a thought; or crucifies an enemy. What is he really doing all the time?
Besides the artist two things are to be considered in every art,— the instrument and the audience; or, to deal in less figured phrase, the medium and the public. From both of these the artist, if he would find freedom for the exercise of all his powers, must sit decently aloof. It is the misfortune of the actor, the singer, and the dancer, that their bodies are their sole instruments. On to the stage of their activities they carry the heart that nourishes them and the lungs wherewith they breathe, so that the soul, to escape degradation, must seek a more remote and difficult privacy. That immemorial right of the soul to make the body its home, a welcome escape from publicity and a refuge for sincerity, must be largely foregone by the actor, who has scant liberty to decorate and administer for his private behoof an apartment that is also a place of business. His ownership is limited by the necessities of his trade; when the customers are gone, he eats and sleeps in the bar-parlour. Nor is the instrument of his performances a thing of his choice; the poorest skill of the violinist may exercise itself upon a Stradivarius, but the actor is reduced to fiddle for the term of his natural life upon the face and fingers that he got from his mother. The serene detachment that may be achieved by disciples of greater arts can hardly be his, applause touches his personal pride too nearly, the mocking echoes of derision infest the solitude of his retired imagination. In none of the world's great polities has the practice of this art been found consistent with noble rank or honourable estate. Christianity might be expected to spare some sympathy for a calling that offers prizes to abandonment and self-immolation, but her eye is fixed on a more distant mark than the pleasure of the populace, and, as in gladiatorial Rome of old, her best efforts have been used to stop the games. Society, on the other hand, preoccupied with the art of life, has no warmer gift than patronage for those whose skill and energy exhaust themselves on the mimicry of life. The reward of social consideration is refused, it is true, to all artists, or accepted by them at their immediate peril. By a natural adjustment, in countries where the artist has sought and attained a certain modest social elevation, the issue has been changed, and the architect or painter, when his health is proposed, finds himself, sorely against the grain, returning thanks for the employer of labour, the genial host, the faithful husband, the tender father, and other pillars of society. The risk of too great familiarity with an audience which insists on honouring the artist irrelevantly, at the expense of the art, must be run by all; a more clinging evil besets the actor, in that he can at no time wholly escape from his phantasmal second self. On this creature of his art he has lavished the last doit of human capacity for expression; with what bearing shall he face the exacting realities of life? Devotion to his profession has beggared him of his personality; ague, old age and poverty, love and death, find in him an entertainer who plies them with a feeble repetition of the triumphs formerly prepared for a larger and less imperious audience. The very journalist—though he, too, when his profession takes him by the throat, may expound himself to his wife in phrases stolen from his own leaders—is a miracle of detachment in comparison; he has not put his laughter to sale. It is well for the soul's health of the artist that a definite boundary should separate his garden from his farm, so that when he escapes from the conventions that rule his work he may be free to recreate himself. But where shall the weary player keep holiday? Is not all the world a stage?
Whatever the chosen instrument of an art may be, its appeal to those whose attention it bespeaks must be made through the senses. Music, which works with the vibrations of a material substance, makes this appeal through the ear; painting through the eye; it is of a piece with the complexity of the literary art that it employs both channels,—as it might seem to a careless apprehension, indifferently.
For the writer's pianoforte is the dictionary, words are the material in which he works, and words may either strike the ear or be gathered by the eye from the printed page. The alternative will be called delusive, for, in European literature at least, there is no word-symbol that does not imply a spoken sound, and no excellence without euphony. But the other way is possible, the gulf between mind and mind may be bridged by something which has a right to the name of literature although it exacts no aid from the ear. The picture-writing of the Indians, the hieroglyphs of Egypt, may be cited as examples of literary meaning conveyed with no implicit help from the spoken word. Such an art, were it capable of high development, would forsake the kinship of melody, and depend for its sensual elements of delight on the laws of decorative pattern. In a land of deaf-mutes it might come to a measure of perfection. But where human intercourse is chiefly by speech, its connexion with the interests and passions of daily life would perforce be of the feeblest, it would tend more and more to cast off the fetters of meaning that it might do freer service to the jealous god of visible beauty. The overpowering rivalry of speech would rob it of all its symbolic intent and leave its bare picture. Literature has favoured rather the way of the ear and has given itself zealously to the tuneful ordering of sounds. Let it be repeated, therefore, that for the traffic of letters the senses are but the door-keepers of the mind; none of them commands an only way of access,—the deaf can read by sight, the blind by touch. It is not amid the bustle of the live senses, but in an under-world of dead impressions that Poetry works her will, raising that in power which was sown in weakness, quickening a spiritual body from the ashes of the natural body. The mind of man is peopled, like some silent city, with a sleeping company of reminiscences, associations, impressions, attitudes, emotions, to be awakened into fierce activity at the touch of words. By one way or another, with a fanfaronnade of the marching trumpets, or stealthily, by noiseless passages and dark posterns, the troop of suggesters enters the citadel, to do its work within. The procession of beautiful sounds that is a poem passes in through the main gate, and forthwith the by-ways resound to the hurry of ghostly feet, until the small company of adventurers is well-nigh lost and overwhelmed in that throng of insurgent spirits.
To attempt to reduce the art of literature to its component sense- elements is therefore vain. Memory, "the warder of the brain," is a fickle trustee, whimsically lavish to strangers, giving up to the appeal of a spoken word or unspoken symbol, an odour or a touch, all that has been garnered by the sensitive capacities of man. It is the part of the writer to play upon memory, confusing what belongs to one sense with what belongs to another, extorting images of colour at a word, raising ideas of harmony without breaking the stillness of the air. He can lead on the dance of words till their sinuous movements call forth, as if by mesmerism, the likeness of some adamantine rigidity, time is converted into space, and music begets sculpture. To see for the sake of seeing, to hear for the sake of hearing, are subsidiary exercises of his complex metaphysical art, to be counted among its rudiments. Picture and music can furnish but the faint beginnings of a philosophy of letters. Necessary though they be to a writer, they are transmuted in his service to new forms, and made to further purposes not their own.
The power of vision—hardly can a writer, least of all if he be a poet, forego that part of his equipment. In dealing with the impalpable, dim subjects that lie beyond the border-land of exact knowledge, the poetic instinct seeks always to bring them into clear definition and bright concrete imagery, so that it might seem for the moment as if painting also could deal with them. Every abstract conception, as it passes into the light of the creative imagination, acquires structure and firmness and colour, as flowers do in the light of the sun. Life and Death, Love and Youth, Hope and Time, become persons in poetry, not that they may wear the tawdry habiliments of the studio, but because persons are the objects of the most familiar sympathy and the most intimate knowledge.
How long, O Death? And shall thy feet depart Still a young child's with mine, or wilt thou stand Full grown the helpful daughter of my heart, What time with thee indeed I reach the strand Of the pale wave which knows thee what thou art, And drink it in the hollow of thy hand?
And as a keen eye for the imagery attendant on a word is essential to all writing, whether prose or poetry, that attempts the heart, so languor of the visual faculty can work disaster even in the calm periods of philosophic expatiation. "It cannot be doubted," says one whose daily meditations enrich The People's Post-Bag, "that Fear is, to a great extent, the mother of Cruelty." Alas, by the introduction of that brief proviso, conceived in a spirit of admirably cautious self-defence, the writer has unwittingly given himself to the horns of a dilemma whose ferocity nothing can mitigate. These tempered and conditional truths are not in nature, which decrees, with uncompromising dogmatism, that either a woman is one's mother, or she is not. The writer probably meant merely that "fear is one of the causes of cruelty," and had he used a colourless abstract word the platitude might pass unchallenged. But a vague desire for the emphasis and glamour of literature having brought in the word "mother," has yet failed to set the sluggish imagination to work, and a word so glowing with picture and vivid with sentiment is damped and dulled by the thumb-mark of besotted usage to mean no more than "cause" or "occasion." Only for the poet, perhaps, are words live winged things, flashing with colour and laden with scent; yet one poor spark of imagination might save them from this sad descent to sterility and darkness.
Of no less import is the power of melody which chooses, rejects, and orders words for the satisfaction that a cunningly varied return of sound can give to the ear. Some critics have amused themselves with the hope that here, in the laws and practices regulating the audible cadence of words, may be found the first principles of style, the form which fashions the matter, the apprenticeship to beauty which alone can make an art of truth. And it may be admitted that verse, owning, as it does, a professed and canonical allegiance to music, sometimes carries its devotion so far that thought swoons into melody, and the thing said seems a discovery made by the way in the search for tuneful expression.
What thing unto mine ear Wouldst thou convey,—what secret thing, O wandering water ever whispering? Surely thy speech shall be of her, Thou water, O thou whispering wanderer, What message dost thou bring?
In this stanza an exquisitely modulated tune is played upon the syllables that make up the word "wandering," even as, in the poem from which it is taken, there is every echo of the noise of waters laughing in sunny brooks, or moaning in dumb hidden caverns. Yet even here it would be vain to seek for reason why each particular sound of every line should be itself and no other. For melody holds no absolute dominion over either verse or prose; its laws, never to be disregarded, prohibit rather than prescribe. Beyond the simple ordinances that determine the place of the rhyme in verse, and the average number of syllables, or rhythmical beats, that occur in the line, where shall laws be found to regulate the sequence of consonants and vowels from syllable to syllable? Those few artificial restrictions, which verse invents for itself, once agreed on, a necessary and perilous license makes up the rest of the code. Literature can never conform to the dictates of pure euphony, while grammar, which has been shaped not in the interests of prosody, but for the service of thought, bars the way with its clumsy inalterable polysyllables and the monotonous sing-song of its inflexions. On the other hand, among a hundred ways of saying a thing, there are more than ninety that a care for euphony may reasonably forbid. All who have consciously practised the art of writing know what endless and painful vigilance is needed for the avoidance of the unfit or untuneful phrase, how the meaning must be tossed from expression to expression, mutilated and deceived, ere it can find rest in words. The stupid accidental recurrence of a single broad vowel; the cumbrous repetition of a particle; the emphatic phrase for which no emphatic place can be found without disorganising the structure of the period; the pert intrusion on a solemn thought of a flight of short syllables, twittering like a flock of sparrows; or that vicious trick of sentences whereby each, unmindful of its position and duties, tends to imitate the deformities of its predecessor;—these are a select few of the difficulties that the nature of language and of man conspire to put upon the writer. He is well served by his mind and ear if he can win past all such traps and ambuscades, robbed of only a little of his treasure, indemnified by the careless generosity of his spoilers, and still singing.
Besides their chime in the ear, and the images that they put before the mind's eye, words have, for their last and greatest possession, a meaning. They carry messages and suggestions that, in the effect wrought, elude all the senses equally. For the sake of this, their prime office, the rest is many times forgotten or scorned, the tune is disordered and havoc played with the lineaments of the picture, because without these the word can still do its business. The refutation of those critics who, in their analysis of the power of literature, make much of music and picture, is contained in the most moving passages that have found utterance from man. Consider the intensity of a saying like that of St. Paul:- "For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Do these verses draw their power from a skilful arrangement of vowel and consonant? But they are quoted from a translation, and can be translated otherwise, well or ill or indifferently, without losing more than a little of their virtue. Do they impress the eye by opening before it a prospect of vast extent, peopled by vague shapes? On the contrary, the visual embodiment of the ideas suggested kills the sense of the passage, by lowering the cope of the starry heavens to the measure of a poplar-tree. Death and life, height and depth, are conceived by the apostle, and creation thrown in like a trinket, only that they may lend emphasis to the denial that is the soul of his purpose. Other arts can affirm, or seem to affirm, with all due wealth of circumstance and detail; they can heighten their affirmation by the modesty of reserve, the surprises of a studied brevity, and the erasure of all impertinence; literature alone can deny, and honour the denial with the last resources of a power that has the universe for its treasury. It is this negative capability of words, their privative force, whereby they can impress the minds with a sense of "vacuity, darkness, solitude, and silence," that Burke celebrates in the fine treatise of his younger days. In such a phrase as "the angel of the Lord" language mocks the positive rivalry of the pictorial art, which can offer only the poor pretence of an equivalent in a young man painted with wings. But the difference between the two arts is even better marked in the matter of negative suggestion; it is instanced by Burke from the noble passage where Virgil describes the descent of AEneas and the Sibyl to the shades of the nether world. Here are amassed all "the images of a tremendous dignity" that the poet could forge from the sublime of denial. The two most famous lines are a procession of negatives:-
Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram, Perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna.
Through hollow kingdoms, emptied of the day, And dim, deserted courts where Dis bears sway, Night-foundered, and uncertain of the path, Darkling they took their solitary way.
Here is the secret of some of the cardinal effects of literature; strong epithets like "lonely," "supreme," "invisible," "eternal," "inexorable," with the substantives that belong to them, borrow their force from the vastness of what they deny. And not these alone, but many other words, less indebted to logic for the magnificence of reach that it can lend, bring before the mind no picture, but a dim emotional framework. Such words as "ominous," "fantastic," "attenuated," "bewildered," "justification," are atmospheric rather than pictorial; they infect the soul with the passion-laden air that rises from humanity. It is precisely in his dealings with words like these, "heated originally by the breath of others," that a poet's fine sense and knowledge most avail him. The company a word has kept, its history, faculties, and predilections, endear or discommend it to his instinct. How hardly will poetry consent to employ such words as "congratulation" or "philanthropist,"—words of good origin, but tainted by long immersion in fraudulent rejoicings and pallid, comfortable, theoretic loves. How eagerly will the poetic imagination seize on a word like "control," which gives scope by its very vagueness, and is fettered by no partiality of association. All words, the weak and the strong, the definite and the vague, have their offices to perform in language, but the loftiest purposes of poetry are seldom served by those explicit hard words which, like tiresome explanatory persons, say all that they mean. Only in the focus and centre of man's knowledge is there place for the hammer-blows of affirmation, the rest is a flickering world of hints and half- lights, echoes and suggestions, to be come at in the dusk or not at all.
The combination of these powers in words, of song and image and meaning, has given us the supreme passages of our romantic poetry. In Shakespeare's work, especially, the union of vivid definite presentment with immense reach of metaphysical suggestion seems to intertwine the roots of the universe with the particular fact; tempting the mind to explore that other side of the idea presented to it, the side turned away from it, and held by something behind.
It will have blood; they say blood win have blood: Stones have been known to move and trees to speak; Augurs and understood relations have By maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth The secret'st man of blood.
This meeting of concrete and abstract, of sense and thought, keeps the eye travelling along the utmost skyline of speculation, where the heavens are interfused with the earth. In short, the third and greatest virtue of words is no other than the virtue that belongs to the weapons of thought,—a deep, wide, questioning thought that discovers analogies and pierces behind things to a half-perceived unity of law and essence. In the employ of keen insight, high feeling, and deep thinking, language comes by its own; the prettinesses that may be imposed on a passive material are as nothing to the splendour and grace that transfigure even the meanest instrument when it is wielded by the energy of thinking purpose. The contempt that is cast, by the vulgar phrase, on "mere words" bears witness to the rarity of this serious consummation. Yet by words the world was shaped out of chaos, by words the Christian religion was established among mankind. Are these terrific engines fit play-things for the idle humours of a sick child?
And now it begins to be apparent that no adequate description of the art of language can be drawn from the technical terminology of the other arts, which, like proud debtors, would gladly pledge their substance to repay an obligation that they cannot disclaim. Let one more attempt to supply literature with a parallel be quoted from the works of a writer on style, whose high merit it is that he never loses sight, either in theory or in practice, of the fundamental conditions proper to the craft of letters. Robert Louis Stevenson, pondering words long and lovingly, was impressed by their crabbed individuality, and sought to elucidate the laws of their arrangement by a reference to the principles of architecture. "The sister arts," he says, "enjoy the use of a plastic and ductile material, like the modeller's clay; literature alone is condemned to work in mosaic with finite and quite rigid words. You have seen those blocks, dear to the nursery: this one a pillar, that a pediment, a third a window or a vase. It is with blocks of just such arbitrary size and figure that the literary architect is condemned to design the palace of his art. Nor is this all; for since these blocks or words are the acknowledged currency of our daily affairs, there are here possible none of those suppressions by which other arts obtain relief, continuity, and vigour: no hieroglyphic touch, no smoothed impasto, no inscrutable shadow, as in painting; no blank wall, as in architecture; but every word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph must move in a logical progression, and convey a definite conventional import."
It is an acute comparison, happily indicative of the morose angularity that words offer to whoso handles them, admirably insistent on the chief of the incommodities imposed upon the writer, the necessity, at all times and at all costs, to mean something. The boon of the recurring monotonous expanse, that an apprentice may fill, the breathing-space of restful mechanical repetition, are denied to the writer, who must needs shoulder the hod himself, and lay on the mortar, in ever varying patterns, with his own trowel. This is indeed the ordeal of the master, the canker-worm of the penny-a-liner, who, poor fellow, means nothing, and spends his life in the vain effort to get words to do the same. But if in this respect architecture and literature are confessed to differ, there remains the likeness that Mr. Stevenson detects in the building materials of the two arts, those blocks of "arbitrary size and figure; finite and quite rigid." There is truth enough in the comparison to make it illuminative, but he would be a rash dialectician who should attempt to draw from it, by way of inference, a philosophy of letters. Words are piled on words, and bricks on bricks, but of the two you are invited to think words the more intractable. Truly, it was a man of letters who said it, avenging himself on his profession for the never-ending toil it imposed, by miscalling it, with grim pleasantry, the architecture of the nursery. Finite and quite rigid words are not, in any sense that holds good of bricks. They move and change, they wax and wane, they wither and burgeon; from age to age, from place to place, from mouth to mouth, they are never at a stay. They take on colour, intensity, and vivacity from the infection of neighbourhood; the same word is of several shapes and diverse imports in one and the same sentence; they depend on the building that they compose for the very chemistry of the stuff that composes them. The same epithet is used in the phrases "a fine day" and "fine irony," in "fair trade" and "a fair goddess." Were different symbols to be invented for these sundry meanings the art of literature would perish. For words carry with them all the meanings they have worn, and the writer shall be judged by those that he selects for prominence in the train of his thought. A slight technical implication, a faint tinge of archaism, in the common turn of speech that you employ, and in a moment you have shaken off the mob that scours the rutted highway, and are addressing a select audience of ticket-holders with closed doors. A single natural phrase of peasant speech, a direct physical sense given to a word that genteel parlance authorises readily enough in its metaphorical sense, and at a touch you have blown the roof off the drawing-room of the villa, and have set its obscure inhabitants wriggling in the unaccustomed sun. In choosing a sense for your words you choose also an audience for them.
To one word, then, there are many meanings, according as it falls in the sentence, according as its successive ties and associations are broken or renewed. And here, seeing that the stupidest of all possible meanings is very commonly the slang meaning, it will be well to treat briefly of slang. For slang, in the looser acceptation of the term, is of two kinds, differing, and indeed diametrically opposite, in origin and worth. Sometimes it is the technical diction that has perforce been coined to name the operations, incidents, and habits of some way of life that society despises or deliberately elects to disregard. This sort of slang, which often invents names for what would otherwise go nameless, is vivid, accurate, and necessary, an addition of wealth to the world's dictionaries and of compass to the world's range of thought. Society, mistily conscious of the sympathy that lightens in any habitual name, seems to have become aware, by one of those wonderful processes of chary instinct which serve the great, vulnerable, timid organism in lieu of a brain, that to accept of the pickpocket his names for the mysteries of his trade is to accept also a new moral stand-point and outlook on the question of property. For this reason, and by no special masonic precautions of his own, the pickpocket is allowed to keep the admirable devices of his nomenclature for the familiar uses of himself and his mates, until a Villon arrives to prove that this language, too, was awaiting the advent of its bully and master. In the meantime, what directness and modest sufficiency of utterance distinguishes the dock compared with the fumbling prolixity of the old gentleman on the bench! It is the trite story,—romanticism forced to plead at the bar of classicism fallen into its dotage, Keats judged by Blackwood, Wordsworth exciting the pained astonishment of Miss Anna Seward. Accuser and accused alike recognise that a question of diction is part of the issue between them; hence the picturesque confession of the culprit, made in proud humility, that he "clicked a red 'un" must needs be interpreted, to save the good faith of the court, into the vaguer and more general speech of the classic convention. Those who dislike to have their watches stolen find that the poorest language of common life will serve their simple turn, without the rich technical additions of a vocabulary that has grown around an art. They can abide no rendering of the fact that does not harp incessantly on the disapproval of watch-owners. They carry their point of morals at the cost of foregoing all glitter and finish in the matter of expression.
This sort of slang, therefore, technical in origin, the natural efflorescence of highly cultivated agilities of brain, and hand, and eye, is worthy of all commendation. But there is another kind that goes under the name of slang, the offspring rather of mental sloth, and current chiefly among those idle, jocular classes to whom all art is a bugbear and a puzzle. There is a public for every one; the pottle-headed lout who in a moment of exuberance strikes on a new sordid metaphor for any incident in the beaten round of drunkenness, lubricity, and debt, can set his fancy rolling through the music-halls, and thence into the street, secure of applause and a numerous sodden discipleship. Of the same lazy stamp, albeit more amiable in effect, are the thought-saying contrivances whereby one word is retained to do the work of many. For the language of social intercourse ease is the first requisite; the average talker, who would be hard put to it if he were called on to describe or to define, must constantly be furnished with the materials of emphasis, wherewith to drive home his likes and dislikes. Why should he alienate himself from the sympathy of his fellows by affecting a singularity in the expression of his emotions? What he craves is not accuracy, but immediacy of expression, lest the tide of talk should flow past him, leaving him engaged in a belated analysis. Thus the word of the day is on all lips, and what was "vastly fine" last century is "awfully jolly" now; the meaning is the same, the expression equally inappropriate. Oaths have their brief periods of ascendency, and philology can boast its fashion-plates. The tyrant Fashion, who wields for whip the fear of solitude, is shepherd to the flock of common talkers, as they run hither and thither pursuing, not self-expression, the prize of letters, but unanimity and self-obliteration, the marks of good breeding. Like those famous modern poets who are censured by the author of Paradise Lost, the talkers of slang are "carried away by custom, to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest them." The poverty of their vocabulary makes appeal to the brotherly sympathy of a partial and like-minded auditor, who can fill out their paltry conventional sketches from his own experience of the same events. Within the limits of a single school, or workshop, or social circle, slang may serve; just as, between friends, silence may do the work of talk. There are few families, or groups of familiars, that have not some small coinage of this token-money, issued and accepted by affection, passing current only within those narrow and privileged boundaries. This wealth is of no avail to the travelling mind, save as a memorial of home, nor is its material such "as, buried once, men want dug up again." A few happy words and phrases, promoted, for some accidental fitness, to the wider world of letters, are all that reach posterity; the rest pass into oblivion with the other perishables of the age.
A profusion of words used in an ephemeral slang sense is evidence, then, that the writer addresses himself merely to the uneducated and thoughtless of his own day; the revival of bygone meanings, on the other hand, and an archaic turn given to language is the mark rather of authors who are ambitious of a hearing from more than one age. The accretions of time bring round a word many reputable meanings, of which the oldest is like to be the deepest in grain. It is a counsel of perfection—some will say, of vainglorious pedantry—but that shaft flies furthest which is drawn to the head, and he who desires to be understood in the twenty-fourth century will not be careless of the meanings that his words inherit from the fourteenth. To know them is of service, if only for the piquancy of avoiding them. But many times they cannot wisely be avoided, and the auspices under which a word began its career when first it was imported from the French or Latin overshadow it and haunt it to the end.
Popular modern usage will often rob common words, like "nice," "quaint," or "silly," of all flavour of their origin, as if it were of no moment to remember that these three words, at the outset of their history, bore the older senses of "ignorant," "noted," and "blessed." It may be granted that any attempt to return to these older senses, regardless of later implications, is stark pedantry; but a delicate writer will play shyly with the primitive significance in passing, approaching it and circling it, taking it as a point of reference or departure. The early faith of Christianity, its beautiful cult of childhood, and its appeal to unlearned simplicity, have left their mark on the meaning of "silly"; the history of the word is contained in that cry of St. Augustine, Indocti surgunt et rapiunt coelum, or in the fervent sentence of the author of the Imitation, Oportet fieri stultum. And if there is a later silliness, altogether unblest, the skilful artificer of words, while accepting this last extension, will show himself conscious of his paradox. So also he will shun the grossness that employs the epithet "quaint" to put upon subtlety and the devices of a studied workmanship an imputation of eccentricity; or, if he falls in with the populace in this regard, he will be careful to justify his innuendo. The slipshod use of "nice" to connote any sort of pleasurable emotion he will take care, in his writings at least, utterly to abhor. From the daintiness of elegance to the arrogant disgust of folly the word carries meanings numerous and diverse enough; it must not be cruelly burdened with all the laudatory occasions of an undiscriminating egotism.
It would be easy to cite a hundred other words like these, saved only by their nobler uses in literature from ultimate defacement. The higher standard imposed upon the written word tends to raise and purify speech also, and since talkers owe the same debt to writers of prose that these, for their part, owe to poets, it is the poets who must be accounted chief protectors, in the last resort, of our common inheritance. Every page of the works of that great exemplar of diction, Milton, is crowded with examples of felicitous and exquisite meaning given to the infallible word. Sometimes he accepts the secondary and more usual meaning of a word only to enrich it by the interweaving of the primary and etymological meaning. Thus the seraph Abdiel, in the passage that narrates his offer of combat to Satan, is said to "explore" his own undaunted heart, and there is no sense of "explore" that does not heighten the description and help the thought. Thus again, when the poet describes those
Eremites and friars, White, Black, and Gray, with all their trumpery,
who inhabit, or are doomed to inhabit, the Paradise of Fools, he seems to invite the curious reader to recall the derivation of "trumpery," and so supplement the idea of worthlessness with that other idea, equally grateful to the author, of deceit. The strength that extracts this multiplex resonance of meaning from a single note is matched by the grace that gives to Latin words like "secure," "arrive," "obsequious," "redound," "infest," and "solemn" the fine precision of intent that art can borrow from scholarship.
Such an exactitude is consistent with vital change; Milton himself is bold to write "stood praying" for "continued kneeling in prayer," and deft to transfer the application of "schism" from the rent garment of the Church to those necessary "dissections made in the quarry and in the timber ere the house of God can be built." Words may safely veer to every wind that blows, so they keep within hail of their cardinal meanings, and drift not beyond the scope of their central employ, but when once they lose hold of that, then, indeed, the anchor has begun to drag, and the beach-comber may expect his harvest.
Fixity in the midst of change, fluctuation at the heart of sameness, such is the estate of language. According as they endeavour to reduce letters to some large haven and abiding-place of civility, or prefer to throw in their lot with the centrifugal tendency and ride on the flying crest of change, are writers dubbed Classic or Romantic. The Romantics are individualist, anarchic; the strains of their passionate incantation raise no cities to confront the wilderness in guarded symmetry, but rather bring the stars shooting from their spheres, and draw wild things captive to a voice. To them Society and Law seem dull phantoms, by the light cast from a flaming soul. They dwell apart, and torture their lives in the effort to attain to self-expression. All means and modes offered them by language they seize on greedily, and shape them to this one end; they ransack the vocabulary of new sciences, and appropriate or invent strange jargons. They furbish up old words or weld together new indifferently, that they may possess the machinery of their speech and not be possessed by it. They are at odds with the idiom of their country in that it serves the common need, and hunt it through all its metamorphoses to subject it to their private will. Heretics by profession, they are everywhere opposed to the party of the Classics, who move by slower ways to ends less personal, but in no wise easier of attainment. The magnanimity of the Classic ideal has had scant justice done to it by modern criticism. To make literature the crowning symbol of a world-wide civilisation; to roof in the ages, and unite the elect of all time in the courtesy of one shining assembly, paying duty to one unquestioned code; to undo the work of Babel, and knit together in a single community the scattered efforts of mankind towards order and reason;—this was surely an aim worthy of labour and sacrifice. Both have been freely given, and the end is yet to seek. The self-assertion of the recusants has found eulogists in plenty, but who has celebrated the self-denial that was thrown away on this other task, which is farther from fulfilment now than it was when the scholars of the Renaissance gave up their patriotism and the tongue of their childhood in the name of fellow-citizenship with the ancients and the oecumenical authority of letters? Scholars, grammarians, wits, and poets were content to bury the lustre of their wisdom and the hard-won fruits of their toil in the winding-sheet of a dead language, that they might be numbered with the family of Cicero, and added to the pious train of Virgil. It was a noble illusion, doomed to failure, the versatile genius of language cried out against the monotony of their Utopia, and the crowds who were to people the unbuilded city of their dreams went straying after the feathered chiefs of the rebels, who, when the fulness of time was come, themselves received apotheosis and the honours of a new motley pantheon. The tomb of that great vision bears for epitaph the ironical inscription which defines a Classic poet as "a dead Romantic."
In truth the Romantics are right, and the serenity of the classic ideal is the serenity of paralysis and death. A universal agreement in the use of words facilitates communication, but, so inextricably is expression entangled with feeling, it leaves nothing to communicate. Inanity dogs the footsteps of the classic tradition, which is everywhere lackeyed, through a long decline, by the pallor of reflected glories. Even the irresistible novelty of personal experience is dulled by being cast in the old matrix, and the man who professes to find the whole of himself in the Bible or in Shakespeare had as good not be. He is a replica and a shadow, a foolish libel on his Creator, who, from the beginning of time, was never guilty of tautology. This is the error of the classical creed, to imagine that in a fleeting world, where the quickest eye can never see the same thing twice, and a deed once done can never be repeated, language alone should be capable of fixity and finality. Nature avenges herself on those who would thus make her prisoner, their truths degenerate to truisms, and feeling dies in the ice-palaces that they build to house it. In their search for permanence they become unreal, abstract, didactic, lovers of generalisation, cherishers of the dry bones of life; their art is transformed into a science, their expression into an academic terminology. Immutability is their ideal, and they find it in the arms of death. Words must change to live, and a word once fixed becomes useless for the purposes of art. Whosoever would make acquaintance with the goal towards which the classic practice tends, should seek it in the vocabulary of the Sciences. There words are fixed and dead, a botanical collection of colourless, scentless, dried weeds, a hortus siccus of proper names, each individual symbol poorly tethered to some single object or idea. No wind blows through that garden, and no sun shines on it, to discompose the melancholy workers at their task of tying Latin labels on to withered sticks. Definition and division are the watchwords of science, where art is all for composition and creation. Not that the exact definable sense of a word is of no value to the stylist; he profits by it as a painter profits by a study of anatomy, or an architect by a knowledge of the strains and stresses that may be put on his material. The exact logical definition is often necessary for the structure of his thought and the ordering of his severer argument. But often, too, it is the merest beginning; when a word is once defined he overlays it with fresh associations and buries it under new-found moral significances, which may belie the definition they conceal. This is the burden of Jeremy Bentham's quarrel with "question-begging appellatives." A clear-sighted and scrupulously veracious philosopher, abettor of the age of reason, apostle of utility, god- father of the panopticon, and donor to the English dictionary of such unimpassioned vocables as "codification" and "international," Bentham would have been glad to purify the language by purging it of those "affections of the soul" wherein Burke had found its highest glory. Yet in censuring the ordinary political usage of such a word as "innovation," it was hardly prejudice in general that he attacked, but the particular and deep-seated prejudice against novelty. The surprising vivacity of many of his own figures,—although he had the courage of his convictions, and laboured, throughout the course of a long life, to desiccate his style,—bears witness to a natural skill in the use of loaded weapons. He will pack his text with grave argument on matters ecclesiastical, and indulge himself and literature, in the notes with a pleasant description of the flesh and the spirit playing leap-frog, now one up, now the other, around the holy precincts of the Church. Lapses like these show him far enough from his own ideal of a geometric fixity in the use of words. The claim of reason and logic to enslave language has a more modern advocate in the philosopher who denies all utility to a word while it retains traces of its primary sensuous employ. The tickling of the senses, the raising of the passions, these things do indeed interfere with the arid business of definition. None the less they are the life's breath of literature, and he is a poor stylist who cannot beg half- a-dozen questions in a single epithet, or state the conclusion he would fain avoid in terms that startle the senses into clamorous revolt.
The two main processes of change in words are Distinction and Assimilation. Endless fresh distinction, to match the infinite complexity of things, is the concern of the writer, who spends all his skill on the endeavour to cloth the delicacies of perception and thought with a neatly fitting garment. So words grow and bifurcate, diverge and dwindle, until one root has many branches. Grammarians tell how "royal" and "regal" grew up by the side of "kingly," how "hospital," "hospice," "hostel" and "hotel" have come by their several offices. The inventor of the word "sensuous" gave to the English people an opportunity of reconsidering those headstrong moral preoccupations which had already ruined the meaning of "sensual" for the gentler uses of a poet. Not only the Puritan spirit, but every special bias or interest of man seizes on words to appropriate them to itself. Practical men of business transfer such words as "debenture" or "commodity" from debt or comfort in general to the palpable concrete symbols of debt or comfort; and in like manlier doctors, soldiers, lawyers, shipmen,— all whose interest and knowledge are centred on some particular craft or profession, drag words from the general store and adapt them to special uses. Such words are sometimes reclaimed from their partial applications by the authority of men of letters, and pass back into their wider meanings enhanced by a new element of graphic association. Language never suffers by answering to an intelligent demand; it is indebted not only to great authors, but to all whom any special skill or taste has qualified to handle it. The good writer may be one who disclaims all literary pretension, but there he is, at work among words,—binding the vagabond or liberating the prisoner, exalting the humble or abashing the presumptuous, incessantly alert to amend their implications, break their lazy habits, and help them to refinement or scope or decision. He educates words, for he knows that they are alive.
Compare now the case of the ruder multitude. In the regard of literature, as a great critic long ago remarked, "all are the multitude; only they differ in clothes, not in judgment or understanding," and the poorest talkers do not inhabit the slums. Wherever thought and taste have fallen to be menials, there the vulgar dwell. How should they gain mastery over language? They are introduced to a vocabulary of some hundred thousand words, which quiver through a million of meanings; the wealth is theirs for the taking, and they are encouraged to be spendthrift by the very excess of what they inherit. The resources of the tongue they speak are subtler and more various than ever their ideas can put to use. So begins the process of assimilation, the edge put upon words by the craftsman is blunted by the rough treatment of the confident booby, who is well pleased when out of many highly- tempered swords he has manufactured a single clumsy coulter. A dozen expressions to serve one slovenly meaning inflate him with the sense of luxury and pomp. "Vast," "huge," "immense," "gigantic," "enormous," "tremendous," "portentous," and such-like groups of words, lose all their variety of sense in a barren uniformity of low employ. The reign of this democracy annuls differences of status, and insults over differences of ability or disposition. Thus do synonyms, or many words ill applied to one purpose, begin to flourish, and, for a last indignity, dictionaries of synonyms.
Let the truth be said outright: there are no synonyms, and the same statement can never be repeated in a changed form of words. Where the ignorance of one writer has introduced an unnecessary word into the language, to fill a place already occupied, the quicker apprehension of others will fasten upon it, drag it apart from its fellows, and find new work for it to do. Where a dull eye sees nothing but sameness, the trained faculty of observation will discern a hundred differences worthy of scrupulous expression. The old foresters had different names for a buck during each successive year of its life, distinguishing the fawn from the pricket, the pricket from the sore, and so forth, as its age increased. Thus it is also in that illimitable but not trackless forest of moral distinctions. Language halts far behind the truth of things, and only a drowsy perception can fail to devise a use for some new implement of description. Every strange word that makes its way into a language spins for itself a web of usage and circumstance, relating itself from whatsoever centre to fresh points in the circumference. No two words ever coincide throughout their whole extent. If sometimes good writers are found adding epithet to epithet for the same quality, and name to name for the same thing, it is because they despair of capturing their meaning at a venture, and so practise to get near it by a maze of approximations. Or, it may be, the generous breadth of their purpose scorns the minuter differences of related terms, and includes all of one affinity, fearing only lest they be found too few and too weak to cover the ground effectively. Of this sort are the so-called synonyms of the Prayer-Book, wherein we "acknowledge and confess" the sins we are forbidden to "dissemble or cloke;" and the bead-roll of the lawyer, who huddles together "give, devise, and bequeath," lest the cunning of litigants should evade any single verb. The works of the poets yield still better instances. When Milton praises the Virtuous Young Lady of his sonnet in that the spleen of her detractors moves her only to "pity and ruth," it is not for the idle filling of the line that he joins the second of these nouns to the first. Rather he is careful to enlarge and intensify his meaning by drawing on the stores of two nations, the one civilised, the other barbarous; and ruth is a quality as much more instinctive and elemental than pity as pitilessness is keener, harder, and more deliberate than the inborn savagery of ruthlessness.
It is not chiefly, however, for the purposes of this accumulated and varied emphasis that the need of synonyms is felt. There is no more curious problem in the philosophy of style than that afforded by the stubborn reluctance of writers, the good as well as the bad, to repeat a word or phrase. When the thing is, they may be willing to abide by the old rule and say the word, but when the thing repeats itself they will seldom allow the word to follow suit. A kind of interdict, not removed until the memory of the first occurrence has faded, lies on a once used word. The causes of this anxiety for a varied expression are manifold. Where there is merely a column to fill, poverty of thought drives the hackney author into an illicit fulness, until the trick of verbiage passes from his practice into his creed, and makes him the dupe of his own puppets. A commonplace book, a dictionary of synonyms, and another of phrase and fable equip him for his task; if he be called upon to marshal his ideas on the question whether oysters breed typhoid, he will acquit himself voluminously, with only one allusion (it is a point of pride) to the oyster by name. He will compare the succulent bivalve to Pandora's box, and lament that it should harbour one of the direst of ills that flesh is heir to. He will find a paradox and an epigram in the notion that the darling of Apicius should suffer neglect under the frowns of AEsculapius. Question, hypothesis, lamentation, and platitude dance their allotted round and fill the ordained space, while Ignorance masquerades in the garb of criticism, and Folly proffers her ancient epilogue of chastened hope. When all is said, nothing is said; and Montaigne's Que scais-je, besides being briefer and wittier, was infinitely more informing.
But we dwell too long with disease; the writer nourished on thought, whose nerves are braced and his loins girt to struggle with a real meaning, is not subject to these tympanies. He feels no idolatrous dread of repetition when the theme requires, it, and is urged by no necessity of concealing real identity under a show of change. Nevertheless he, too, is hedged about by conditions that compel him, now and again, to resort to what seems a synonym. The chief of these is the indispensable law of euphony, which governs the sequence not only of words, but also of phrases. In proportion as a phrase is memorable, the words that compose it become mutually adhesive, losing for a time something of their individual scope, bringing with them, if they be torn away too quickly, some cumbrous fragments of their recent association. That he may avoid this, a sensitive writer is often put to his shifts, and extorts, if he be fortunate, a triumph from the accident of his encumbrance. By a slight stress laid on the difference of usage the unshapeliness may be done away with, and a new grace found where none was sought. Addison and Landor accuse Milton, with reason, of too great a fondness for the pun, yet surely there is something to please the mind, as well as the ear, in the description of the heavenly judgment,
That brought into this world a world of woe.
Where words are not fitted with a single hard definition, rigidly observed, all repetition is a kind of delicate punning, bringing slight differences of application into clear relief. The practice has its dangers for the weak-minded lover of ornament, yet even so it may be preferable to the flat stupidity of one identical intention for a word or phrase in twenty several contexts. For the law of incessant change is not so much a counsel of perfection to be held up before the apprentice, as a fundamental condition of all writing whatsoever; if the change be not ordered by art it will order itself in default of art. The same statement can never be repeated even in the same form of words, and it is not the old question that is propounded at the third time of asking. Repetition, that is to say, is the strongest generator of emphasis known to language. Take the exquisite repetitions in these few lines:-
Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear Compels me to disturb your season due; For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime, Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Here the tenderness of affection returns again to the loved name, and the grief of the mourner repeats the word "dead." But this monotony of sorrow is the least part of the effect, which lies rather in the prominence given by either repetition to the most moving circumstance of all—the youthfulness of the dead poet. The attention of the discursive intellect, impatient of reiteration, is concentrated on the idea which these repeated and exhausted words throw into relief. Rhetoric is content to borrow force from simpler methods; a good orator will often bring his hammer down, at the end of successive periods, on the same phrase; and the mirthless refrain of a comic song, or the catchword of a buffoon, will raise laughter at last by its brazen importunity. Some modem writers, admiring the easy power of the device, have indulged themselves with too free a use of it; Matthew Arnold particularly, in his prose essays, falls to crying his text like a hawker,
Beating it in upon our weary brains, As tho' it were the burden of a song,
clattering upon the iron of the Philistine giant in the effort to bring him to reason. These are the ostentatious violences of a missionary, who would fain save his enemy alive, where a grimmer purpose is glad to employ a more silent weapon and strike but once. The callousness of a thick-witted auditory lays the need for coarse method on the gentlest soul resolved to stir them. But he whose message is for minds attuned and tempered will beware of needless reiteration, as of the noisiest way of emphasis. Is the same word wanted again, he will examine carefully whether the altered incidence does not justify and require an altered term, which the world is quick to call a synonym. The right dictionary of synonyms would give the context of each variant in the usage of the best authors. To enumerate all the names applied by Milton to the hero of Paradise Lost, without reference to the passages in which they occur, would be a foolish labour; with such reference, the task is made a sovereign lesson in style. At Hell gates, where he dallies in speech with his leman Sin to gain a passage from the lower World, Satan is "the subtle Fiend," in the garden of Paradise he is "the Tempter" and "the Enemy of Mankind," putting his fraud upon Eve he is the "wily Adder," leading her in full course to the tree he is "the dire Snake," springing to his natural height before the astonished gaze of the cherubs he is "the grisly King." Every fresh designation elaborates his character and history, emphasises the situation, and saves a sentence. So it is with all variable appellations of concrete objects; and even in the stricter and more conventional region of abstract ideas the same law runs. Let a word be changed or repeated, it brings in either case its contribution of emphasis, and must be carefully chosen for the part it is to play, lest it should upset the business of the piece by irrelevant clownage in the midst of high matter, saying more or less than is set down for it in the author's purpose.
The chameleon quality of language may claim yet another illustration. Of origins we know nothing certainly, nor how words came by their meanings in the remote beginning, when speech, like the barnacle-goose of the herbalist, was suspended over an expectant world, ripening on a tree. But this we know, that language in its mature state is fed and fattened on metaphor. Figure is not a late device of the rhetorician, but the earliest principle of change in language. The whole process of speech is a long series of exhilarating discoveries, whereby words, freed from the swaddling bands of their nativity, are found capable of new relations and a wider metaphorical employ. Then, with the growth of exact knowledge, the straggling associations that attended the word on its travels are straitened and confined, its meaning is settled, adjusted, and balanced, that it may bear its part in the scrupulous deposition of truth. Many are the words that have run this double course, liberated from their first homely offices and transformed by poetry, reclaimed in a more abstract sense, and appropriated to a new set of facts by science. Yet a third chance awaits them when the poet, thirsty for novelty, passes by the old simple founts of figure to draw metaphor from the latest technical applications of specialised terms. Everywhere the intuition of poetry, impatient of the sturdy philosophic cripple that lags so far behind, is busy in advance to find likenesses not susceptible of scientific demonstration, to leap to comparisons that satisfy the heart while they leave the colder intellect only half convinced. When an elegant dilettante like Samuel Rogers is confronted with the principle of gravitation he gives voice to science in verse:-
That very law which moulds a tear, And bids it trickle from its source, That law preserves the earth a sphere, And guides the planets in their course.
But a seer like Wordsworth will never be content to write tunes for a text-book of physics, he boldly confounds the arbitrary limits of matter and morals in one splendid apostrophe to Duty:-
Flowers laugh before thee on their beds; And fragrance in thy footing treads; Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong; And the most ancient heavens, through thee, are fresh and strong.
Poets, it is said, anticipate science; here in these four lines is work for a thousand laboratories for a thousand years. But the truth has been understated; every writer and every speaker works ahead of science, expressing analogies and contrasts, likenesses and differences, that will not abide the apparatus of proof. The world of perception and will, of passion and belief, is an uncaptured virgin, airily deriding from afar the calculated advances and practised modesty of the old bawd Science; turning again to shower a benediction of unexpected caresses on the most cavalier of her wooers, Poetry. This world, the child of Sense and Faith, shy, wild, and provocative, for ever lures her lovers to the chase, and the record of their hopes and conquests is contained in the lover's language, made up wholly of parable and figure of speech. There is nothing under the sun nor beyond it that does not concern man, and it is the unceasing effort of humanity, whether by letters or by science, to bring "the commerce of the mind and of things" to terms of nearer correspondence. But Literature, ambitious to touch life on all its sides, distrusts the way of abstraction, and can hardly be brought to abandon the point of view whence things are seen in their immediate relation to the individual soul. This kind of research is the work of letters; here are facts of human life to be noted that are never like to be numerically tabulated, changes and developments that defy all metrical standards to be traced and described. The greater men of science have been cast in so generous a mould that they have recognised the partial nature of their task; they have known how to play with science as a pastime, and to win and wear her decorations for a holiday favour. They have not emaciated the fulness of their faculties in the name of certainty, nor cramped their humanity for the promise of a future good. They have been the servants of Nature, not the slaves of method. But the grammarian of the laboratory is often the victim of his trade. He staggers forth from his workshop, where prolonged concentration on a mechanical task, directed to a provisional and doubtful goal, has dimmed his faculties; the glaring motley of the world, bathed in sunlight, dazzles him; the questions, moral, political, and personal, that his method has relegated to some future of larger knowledge, crowd upon him, clamorous for solution, not to be denied, insisting on a settlement to-day. He is forced to make a choice, and may either forsake the divinity he serves, falling back, for the practical and aesthetic conduct of life, on those common instincts of sensuality which oscillate between the conventicle and the tavern as the poles of duty and pleasure, or, more pathetically still, he may attempt to bring the code of the observatory to bear immediately on the vagaries of the untameable world, and suffer the pedant's disaster. A martyr to the good that is to be, he has voluntarily maimed himself "for the kingdom of Heaven's sake"—if, perchance, the kingdom of Heaven might come by observation. The enthusiasm of his self-denial shows itself in his unavailing struggle to chain language also to the bare rock of ascertained fact. Metaphor, the poet's right-hand weapon, he despises; all that is tentative, individual, struck off at the urging of a mood, he disclaims and suspects. Yet the very rewards that science promises have their parallel in the domain of letters. The discovery of likeness in the midst of difference, and of difference in the midst of likeness, is the keenest pleasure of the intellect; and literary expression, as has been said, is one long series of such discoveries, each with its thrill of incommunicable happiness, all unprecedented, and perhaps unverifiable by later experiment. The finest instrument of these discoveries is metaphor, the spectroscope of letters.
Enough has been said of change; it remains to speak of one more of those illusions of fixity wherein writers seek exemption from the general lot. Language, it has been shown, is to be fitted to thought; and, further, there are no synonyms. What more natural conclusion could be drawn by the enthusiasm of the artist than that there is some kind of preordained harmony between words and things, whereby expression and thought tally exactly, like the halves of a puzzle? This illusion, called in France the doctrine of the mot propre, is a will o' the wisp which has kept many an artist dancing on its trail. That there is one, and only one way of expressing one thing has been the belief of other writers besides Gustave Flaubert, inspiriting them to a desperate and fruitful industry. It is an amiable fancy, like the dream of Michael Angelo, who loved to imagine that the statue existed already in the block of marble, and had only to be stripped of its superfluous wrappings, or like the indolent fallacy of those economic soothsayers to whom Malthus brought rough awakening, that population and the means of subsistence move side by side in harmonious progress. But hunger does not imply food, and there may hover in the restless heads of poets, as themselves testify -
One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the least, Which into words no virtue can digest.
Matter and form are not so separable as the popular philosophy would have them; indeed, the very antithesis between them is a cardinal instance of how language reacts on thought, modifying and fixing a cloudy truth. The idea pursues form not only that it may be known to others, but that it may know itself, and the body in which it becomes incarnate is not to be distinguished from the informing soul. It is recorded of a famous Latin historian how he declared that he would have made Pompey win the battle of Pharsalia had the effective turn of the sentence required it. He may stand for the true type of the literary artist. The business of letters, howsoever simple it may seem to those who think truth-telling a gift of nature, is in reality two-fold, to find words for a meaning, and to find a meaning for words. Now it is the words that refuse to yield, and now the meaning, so that he who attempts to wed them is at the same time altering his words to suit his meaning, and modifying and shaping his meaning to satisfy the requirements of his words. The humblest processes of thought have had their first education from language long before they took shape in literature. So subtle is the connexion between the two that it is equally possible to call language the form given to the matter of thought, or, inverting the application of the figure, to speak of thought as the formal principle that shapes the raw material of language. It is not until the two become one that they can be known for two. The idea to be expressed is a kind of mutual recognition between thought and language, which here meet and claim each other for the first time, just as in the first glance exchanged by lovers, the unborn child opens its eyes on the world, and pleads for life. But thought, although it may indulge itself with the fancy of a predestined affiance, is not confined to one mate, but roves free and is the father of many children. A belief in the inevitable word is the last refuge of that stubborn mechanical theory of the universe which has been slowly driven from science, politics, and history. Amidst so much that is undulating, it has pleased writers to imagine that truth persists and is provided by heavenly munificence with an imperishable garb of language. But this also is vanity, there is one end appointed alike to all, fact goes the way of fiction, and what is known is no more perdurable than what is made. Not words nor works, but only that which is formless endures, the vitality that is another name for change, the breath that fills and shatters the bubbles of good and evil, of beauty and deformity, of truth and untruth.
No art is easy, least of all the art of letters. Apply the musical analogy once more to the instrument whereon literature performs its voluntaries. With a living keyboard of notes which are all incessantly changing in value, so that what rang true under Dr. Johnson's hand may sound flat or sharp now, with a range of a myriad strings, some falling mute and others being added from day to day, with numberless permutations and combinations, each of which alters the tone and pitch of the units that compose it, with fluid ideas that never have an outlined existence until they have found their phrases and the improvisation is complete, is it to be wondered at that the art of style is eternally elusive, and that the attempt to reduce it to rule is the forlorn hope of academic infatuation?
These difficulties and complexities of the instrument are, nevertheless, the least part of the ordeal that is to be undergone by the writer. The same musical note or phrase affects different ears in much the same way; not so the word or group of words. The pure idea, let us say, is translated into language by the literary composer; who is to be responsible for the retranslation of the language into idea? Here begins the story of the troubles and weaknesses that are imposed upon literature by the necessity it lies under of addressing itself to an audience, by its liability to anticipate the corruptions that mar the understanding of the spoken or written word. A word is the operative symbol of a relation between two minds, and is chosen by the one not without regard to the quality of the effect actually produced upon the other. Men must be spoken to in their accustomed tongue, and persuaded that the unknown God proclaimed by the poet is one whom aforetime they ignorantly worshipped. The relation of great authors to the public may be compared to the war of the sexes, a quiet watchful antagonism between two parties mutually indispensable to each other, at one time veiling itself in endearments, at another breaking out into open defiance. He who has a message to deliver must wrestle with his fellows before he shall be permitted to ply them with uncomfortable or unfamiliar truths. The public, like the delicate Greek Narcissus, is sleepily enamoured of itself; and the name of its only other perfect lover is Echo. Yet even great authors must lay their account with the public, and it is instructive to observe how different are the attitudes they have adopted, how uniform the disappointment they have felt. Some, like Browning and Mr. Meredith in our own day, trouble themselves little about the reception given to their work, but are content to say on, until the few who care to listen have expounded them to the many, and they are applauded, in the end, by a generation whom they have trained to appreciate them. Yet this noble and persevering indifference is none of their choice, and long years of absolution from criticism must needs be paid for in faults of style. "Writing for the stage," Mr. Meredith himself has remarked, "would be a corrective of a too-incrusted scholarly style into which some great ones fall at times." Denied such a corrective, the great one is apt to sit alone and tease his meditations into strange shapes, fortifying himself against obscurity and neglect with the reflection that most of the words he uses are to be found, after all, in the dictionary. It is not, however, from the secluded scholar that the sharpest cry of pain is wrung by the indignities of his position, but rather from genius in the act of earning a full meed of popular applause. Both Shakespeare and Ben Jonson wrote for the stage, both were blown by the favouring breath of their plebeian patrons into reputation and a competence. Each of them passed through the thick of the fight, and well knew that ugly corner where the artist is exposed to cross fires, his own idea of masterly work on the one hand and the necessity for pleasing the rabble on the other. When any man is awake to the fact that the public is a vile patron, when he is conscious also that his bread and his fame are in their gift—it is a stern passage for his soul, a touchstone for the strength and gentleness of his spirit. Jonson, whose splendid scorn took to itself lyric wings in the two great Odes to Himself, sang high and aloof for a while, then the frenzy caught him, and he flung away his lyre to gird himself for deeds of mischief among nameless and noteless antagonists. Even Chapman, who, in The Tears of Peace, compares "men's refuse ears" to those gates in ancient cities which were opened only when the bodies of executed malefactors were to be cast away, who elsewhere gives utterance, in round terms, to his belief that
No truth of excellence was ever seen But bore the venom of the vulgar's spleen,
- even the violences of this great and haughty spirit must pale beside the more desperate violences of the dramatist who commended his play to the public in the famous line,
By God, 'tis good, and if you like't, you may.
This stormy passion of arrogant independence disturbs the serenity of atmosphere necessary for creative art. A greater than Jonson donned the suppliant's robes, like Coriolanus, and with the inscrutable honeyed smile about his lips begged for the "most sweet voices" of the journeymen and gallants who thronged the Globe Theatre. Only once does the wail of anguish escape him -
Alas! 'tis true, I have gone here and there, And made myself a motley to the view, Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear.
And again -
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand, And almost thence my nature is subdued To what it works in, like the dyer's hand, Pity me then, and wish I were renewed.
Modern vulgarity, speaking through the mouths of Shakesperian commentators, is wont to interpret these lines as a protest against the contempt wherewith Elizabethan society regarded the professions of playwright and actor. We are asked to conceive that Shakespeare humbly desires the pity of his bosom friend because he is not put on the same level of social estimation with a brocaded gull or a prosperous stupid goldsmith of the Cheap. No, it is a cry, from the depth of his nature, for forgiveness because he has sacrificed a little on the altar of popularity. Jonson would have boasted that he never made this sacrifice. But he lost the calm of his temper and the clearness of his singing voice, he degraded his magnanimity by allowing it to engage in street-brawls, and he endangered the sanctuary of the inviolable soul.
At least these great artists of the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries are agreed upon one thing, that the public, even in its most gracious mood, makes an ill task-master for the man of letters. It is worth the pains to ask why, and to attempt to show how much of an author's literary quality is involved in his attitude towards his audience. Such an inquiry will take us, it is true, into bad company, and exhibit the vicious, the fatuous, and the frivolous posturing to an admiring crowd. But style is a property of all written and printed matter, so that to track it to its causes and origins is a task wherein literary criticism may profit by the humbler aid of anthropological research.
Least of all authors is the poet subject to the tyranny of his audience. "Poetry and eloquence," says John Stuart Mill, "are both alike the expression or utterance of feeling. But if we may be excused the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet's utter unconsciousness of a listener." Poetry, according to this discerning criticism, is an inspired soliloquy; the thoughts rise unforced and unchecked, taking musical form in obedience only to the law of their being, giving pleasure to an audience only as the mountain spring may chance to assuage the thirst of a passing traveller. In lyric poetry, language, from being a utensil, or a medium of traffic and barter, passes back to its place among natural sounds; its affinity is with the wind among the trees and the stream among the rocks; it is the cry of the heart, as simple as the breath we draw, and as little ordered with a view to applause. Yet speech grew up in society, and even in the most ecstatic of its uses may flag for lack of understanding and response. It were rash to say that the poets need no audience; the loneliest have promised themselves a tardy recognition, and some among the greatest came to their maturity in the warm atmosphere of a congenial society. Indeed the ratification set upon merit by a living audience, fit though few, is necessary for the development of the most humane and sympathetic genius; and the memorable ages of literature, in Greece or Rome, in France or England, have been the ages of a literary society. The nursery of our greatest dramatists must be looked for, not, it is true, in the transfigured bear-gardens of the Bankside, but in those enchanted taverns, islanded and bastioned by the protective decree -
Idiota, insulsus, tristis, turpis, abesto.
The poet seems to be soliloquising because he is addressing himself, with the most entire confidence, to a small company of his friends, who may even, in unhappy seasons, prove to be the creatures of his imagination. Real or imaginary, they are taken by him for his equals; he expects from them a quick intelligence and a perfect sympathy, which may enable him to despise all concealment. He never preaches to them, nor scolds, nor enforces the obvious. Content that what he has spoken he has spoken, he places a magnificent trust on a single expression. He neither explains, nor falters, nor repents; he introduces his work with no preface, and cumbers it with no notes. He will not lower nor raise his voice for the sake of the profane and idle who may chance to stumble across his entertainment. His living auditors, unsolicited for the tribute of worship or an alms, find themselves conceived of in the likeness of what he would have them to be, raised to a companion pinnacle of friendship, and constituted peers and judges, if they will, of his achievement. Sometimes they come late.
This blend of dignity and intimacy, of candour and self-respect, is unintelligible to the vulgar, who understand by intimacy mutual concession to a base ideal, and who are so accustomed to deal with masks, that when they see a face they are shocked as by some grotesque. Now a poet, like Montaigne's naked philosopher, is all face; and the bewilderment of his masked and muffled critics is the greater. Wherever he attracts general attention he cannot but be misunderstood. The generality of modern men and women who pretend to literature are not hypocrites, or they might go near to divine him,—for hypocrisy, though rooted in cowardice, demands for its flourishing a clear intellectual atmosphere, a definite aim, and a certain detachment of the directing mind. But they are habituated to trim themselves by the cloudy mirror of opinion, and will mince and temporise, as if for an invisible audience, even in their bedrooms. Their masks have, for the most part, grown to their faces, so that, except in some rare animal paroxysm of emotion, it is hardly themselves that they express. The apparition of a poet disquiets them, for he clothes himself with the elements, and apologises to no idols. His candour frightens them: they avert their eyes from it; or they treat it as a licensed whim; or, with a sudden gleam of insight, and apprehension of what this means for them and theirs, they scream aloud for fear. A modern instance may be found in the angry protestations launched against Rossetti's Sonnets, at the time of their first appearance, by a writer who has since matched himself very exactly with an audience of his own kind. A stranger freak of burgess criticism is everyday fare in the odd world peopled by the biographers of Robert Burns. The nature of Burns, one would think, was simplicity itself; it could hardly puzzle a ploughman, and two sailors out of three would call him brother. But he lit up the whole of that nature by his marvellous genius for expression, and grave personages have been occupied ever since in discussing the dualism of his character, and professing to find some dark mystery in the existence of this, that, or the other trait—a love of pleasure, a hatred of shams, a deep sense of religion. It is common human nature, after all, that is the mystery, but they seem never to have met with it, and treat it as if it were the poet's eccentricity. They are all agog to worship him, and when they have made an image of him in their own likeness, and given it a tin-pot head that exactly hits their taste, they break into noisy lamentation over the discovery that the original was human, and had feet of clay. They deem "Mary in Heaven" so admirable that they could find it in their hearts to regret that she was ever on earth. This sort of admirers constantly refuses to bear a part in any human relationship; they ask to be fawned on, or trodden on, by the poet while he is in life; when he is dead they make of him a candidate for godship, and heckle him. It is a misfortune not wholly without its compensations that most great poets are dead before they are popular.
If great and original literary artists—here grouped together under the title of poets—will not enter into transactions with their audience, there is no lack of authors who will. These are not necessarily charlatans; they may have by nature a ready sympathy with the grossness of the public taste, and thus take pleasure in studying to gratify it. But man loses not a little of himself in crowds, and some degradation there must be where the one adapts himself to the many. The British public is not seen at its best when it is enjoying a holiday in a foreign country, nor when it is making excursions into the realm of imaginative literature: those who cater for it in these matters must either study its tastes or share them. Many readers bring the worst of themselves to a novel; they want lazy relaxation, or support for their nonsense, or escape from their creditors, or a free field for emotions that they dare not indulge in life. The reward of an author who meets them half- way in these respects, who neither puzzles nor distresses them, who asks nothing from them, but compliments them on their great possessions and sends them away rejoicing, is a full measure of acceptance, and editions unto seventy times seven.
The evils caused by the influence of the audience on the writer are many. First of all comes a fault far enough removed from the characteristic vices of the charlatan—to wit, sheer timidity and weakness. There is a kind of stage-fright that seizes on a man when he takes pen in hand to address an unknown body of hearers, no less than when he stands up to deliver himself to a sea of expectant faces. This is the true panic fear, that walks at mid- day, and unmans those whom it visits. Hence come reservations, qualifications, verbosity, and the see-saw of a wavering courage, which apes progress and purpose, as soldiers mark time with their feet. The writing produced under these auspices is of no greater moment than the incoherent loquacity of a nervous patient. All self-expression is a challenge thrown down to the world, to be taken up by whoso will; and the spirit of timidity, when it touches a man, suborns him with the reminder that he holds his life and goods by the sufferance of his fellows. Thereupon he begins to doubt whether it is worth while to court a verdict of so grave possibilities, or to risk offending a judge—whose customary geniality is merely the outcome of a fixed habit of inattention. In doubt whether to speak or keep silence, he takes a middle course, and while purporting to speak for himself, is careful to lay stress only on the points whereon all are agreed, to enlarge eloquently on the doubtfulness of things, and to give to words the very least meaning that they will carry. Such a procedure, which glides over essentials, and handles truisms or trivialities with a fervour of conviction, has its functions in practice. It will win for a politician the coveted and deserved repute of a "safe" man— safe, even though the cause perish. Pleaders and advocates are sometimes driven into it, because to use vigorous, clean, crisp English in addressing an ordinary jury or committee is like flourishing a sword in a drawing-room: it will lose the case. Where the weakest are to be convinced speech must stoop: a full consideration of the velleities and uncertainties, a little bombast to elevate the feelings without committing the judgment, some vague effusion of sentiment, an inapposite blandness, a meaningless rodomontade—these are the by-ways to be travelled by the style that is a willing slave to its audience. The like is true of those documents—petitions, resolutions, congratulatory addresses, and so forth—that are written to be signed by a multitude of names. Public occasions of this kind, where all and sundry are to be satisfied, have given rise to a new parliamentary dialect, which has nothing of the freshness of individual emotion, is powerless to deal with realities, and lacks all resonance, vitality, and nerve. There is no cure for this, where the feelings and opinions of a crowd are to be expressed. But where indecision is the ruling passion of the individual, he may cease to write. Popularity was never yet the prize of those whose only care is to avoid offence.